When ‘newspaper reporter’ came in behind ‘oil rig worker’ and ‘corrections officer’ in an American study of the best and worst jobs of 2013, few in the media were particularly surprised. Those lucky enough to have a job at a newspaper (remember those things?) have for years endured static wages, longer hours and round after round of layoffs.
Freelance writer wasn’t listed in the survey, but the prevailing wisdom is that we have it even worse. Gone are the days (if they ever really existed) when one could dash out a few lines for a glossy magazine and use the proceeds to pay your rent and have some beer money left over.
Once reliable outlets have closed, pay rates have dropped and the internet has democratised writing. If Dr Johnson was right when he said that “no man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money,” then there are an awful lot of blockheads out there. And they’re bloody undercutting those of us who want to get paid.
Things reached something of a head recently when Crikey launched its new arts website The Daily Review and announced it would not be paying contributors. An open letter from Crikey contributors Byron Bache, Laurence Barber and Bethanie Blanchard urged writers not to contribute to the new site and drew more than 30 high profile co-signatories and started a mini twitter storm that led the National Library to threaten to pull its advertising. The Crikey controversy echoed an earlier hullabaloo over whether Mia Freedman’s MamaMia website should pay its contributors.
So it’s quite easy to take an apocalyptic view of the future of paid writing. I’d have to disagree with you, though. In fact, I’d argue that there’s never been a better time to be a freelancer in this country.
Online media players like Junkee, The Hoopla, The King’s Tribune and Pedestrian are popping up everywhere and most of them pay. Though the money isn’t comparable to writing magazine features, neither is the work, which often consists of opinion and blogging.
When Morry Schwartz’s The Saturday Paper launches early next year, it will be the third major outlet after The Guardian Australia and The New Daily to launch within a year. The last time three publications of that size launched in Australia, “social media” meant leaving your newspaper in the dunny for the next bloke.
Speaking of which, it’s never been easier for writers to support one another. Writing is a fundamentally solitary pursuit, but social media lets us stay in touch and organise collectively. The Crikey boycott is a great example. Writers like John Birmingham, Ben Law and Clem Ford, who are at the top of the freelance food chain, used their influence to intervene for those of us who are still climbing up the greasy pole. And where in the past pay rates were dirty little secrets guarded by a collective silence that advantaged publishers, today they’re freely shared and compared.
Writing for money has always been a tough gig. Doing what you love (and doing it in your pyjamas) doesn’t mean you don’t have to work hard.
Being a professional writer isn’t about to get easier, but it’s a seriously exciting time to be giving it a go.